The clock in Africa struck three as the old woman scrambled off the bed, slipped her feet into the backless bedroom slippers with the legend “Rose of Harem” on the insoles, put on the black, cast-iron coat reaching right down to her heels – respectable women don’t have legs – and the leap-year hat, threw open the window and let Jesus Christ of Nazareth, King of the Jews, Our Lord and Saviour and Stomoxys Calcitrans out of the matchbox.
In autumn Ida used to catch a lethargic fly – sometimes it was a Musca Domestica, but more often a Stomoxys Calcitrans – pop it into a matchbox and take it to the post office. There the box was wrapped in thick brown paper and sealed with sealing wax. The old woman painstakingly traced out her address on the paper, and then the postmaster, Looksharphorse, put the tiny package away in the safe, where it lay until spring beside a bunch of garlic, an opened bottle of vodka, a dried bream and round tin of shoe-blacking. In April hunchbacked Biddy Ja brought Ida the fragrant package, for which Ida regaled the postwoman with a small glass of crowbar moonshine and a hard, salty little bagel. And then on the night before Easter Sunday she shook the fly out onto her palm and waited patiently for it to revive. The insect made a circle round her hand, foundering in the deep, crooked furrows of the old woman’s destiny, clambered up onto the Mount of Jupiter at the base of the yellowish, tobacco-stained forefinger, froze for a few moments and then, with a sudden flurry of tiny wings, darted out through the open window and immediately disappeared from view.
“Christ is risen,” Ida whispered after the fly. “Indeed he is risen.”
So it had been every year, but not on this night. This time the fly merely crept along a little bit and froze, without even opening its tiny wings. Probably it was put off by the weather outside – it was teeming with rain, windy and cold. Ida put the fly back in the match box, tucked it into her pocket, closed the window and walked out of the house.
From her house to the square was only three hundred metres or so. This journey usually took Ida about ten minutes or even less. But this time everything was different. The streetlamps along the bumpy, rutted road weren’t lit, the rain was flooding over the rough asphalt, the verges of the road had turned mushy, the climb seemed especially steep, her slippers kept dropping off her feet and the strong wind snapped the wet flaps of her heavy, unbuttoned coat, tossing them up and making it hard for her to keep her balance. Halfway there she fell onto one knee and lost a shoe, the wind tore off her little hat and Ida emerged onto the square barefoot and bareheaded, with her coat wide open.
The square was deserted. Rising up at its centre was the ugly, black neck of an old well, surrounded by half-ruined stone watering-troughs, and standing round it were the Church of the Lord’s Resurrection, the pharmacy with dwarfs pickled in alcohol in its shop window, the Pavlov’s Dog restaurant, the militia station, the post office, the Stone Buildings of the shopping arcade, the Transformer – a statue of Pushkin with a lantern in his outstretched hand – and the German House – a hospital built in 1948 by German prisoners of war; and somewhere off behind the hospital, vaguely visible in the damp, flickering gloom, was the roof of the crematorium with a bronze angel on its tall chimney.
Ida caught her breath and set off towards the militia station, limping more heavily than usual. She walked up the steps and knocked – and the door opened instantly. Standing on the threshold was the chief of militia, Major Pan Paratov. Breathing heavily, the old woman took a step towards Paratov, reached out her hand, opened her mouth as if she was going to say something and suddenly fell – Paratov only just caught her.
Luminius the drunk trundled the body to the hospital on his wheelbarrow. He used this barrow for delivering sacks of sugar, coal and manure to old women, thereby earning himself enough for a bottle, or at least a glass, of crowbar. On market days the barrow was in constant demand by traders who had brought their pork carcasses and sacks of potatoes to Chudov from the villages. Luminius called the handcart his “artillery shell” and he never washed it, so when the cart’s owner was sleeping it off in the bushes somewhere after a binge, he could always be located by the smell of his artillery shell. And now the shell had come in handy again. Luminius pushed the wheelbarrow along in front of him with the old woman’s bare legs dangling out of it, and hunchbacked Biddy Ja ran along behind with Ida’s slippers in her hands.
Already waiting for Ida in the courtyard of the German House was Dr. Zherekh, an immense glutton with his teeth clenched on the massive log that he called his pipe. They carried Ida into the reception ward. A scar that started on her forehead, barely noticeable on her left eyebrow, flowed right across her cheek and cleft her lip. There was a time when it had to be hidden under a layer of makeup, but now her wrinkles were deeper than this old scar. Instead of a cross, she had a key, black with age, hanging round her neck, and in the pocket of her coat they discovered a matchbox with a fly in it. The doctor nodded, the body was covered over with a sheet and trundled away.
What had happened to Ida Zmoiro was no surprise to anyone in the town. Everybody realised that it was the little doves, and only the little doves, who were to blame.
A little dove was what they called a young girl who walked in a funeral procession, holding a bird in her hands. The journey from the church to the crematorium took only ten minutes, and in order to prolong the leave-taking people had long, long ago invented a special ritual. The funeral procession – at the front the dwarf Karl in his lucky shoes, holding an ancient icon in his hands, followed by the old man Chetveryago, wearing his monstrous high boots and leading by the bridle the black horse pulling the cart with the coffin, and at the back the people saying farewell, intoning the chant “Eternal Memory” – made three circles round the square, which was sprinkled with sugar (when the square was circumambulated by a wedding possession, salt was sprinkled under the people’s feet). In the thick of the black crowd walked a little girl, wearing a little white dress, with a white shawl on her head and a white dove in her hands. After that the procession set off to the crematorium, the entrance to which was surmounted by a gaudy inscription in Gothic lettering: “Feuer macht frei”. And when the coffin was finally immersed in the flames and the bronze angel began sounding lingering notes on his horn, the people parted to make way for the little girl with the white bird. After waiting for silence, she stood up on her tiptoes and raised her hands high in the air, releasing the bird. At that moment all eyes were riveted on the little girl in white – so young, so endearing, so beautiful – as, lowering her arms in a smooth movement, she inclined her head, and the white shawl covered her flushed face, and meanwhile the dove, having circled round once or twice in the confined space, with its stifling smell of machine oil and coal gas, flew out through the window and soared up into the sky, overtaking the black smoke rising from the chimney ...
All the mothers of Chudov wanted their little girls to shine in this role at least once in their lives – in a little white dress, holding a white dove, in the public eye. Ida Zmoiro had run a dance class at the club, at which she also trained the girls for the role of the little dove. Mothers willingly sent their daughters to be taught – after all, the old woman Zmoiro used to be an actress, a genuine actress, a Stalin Prize winner, she had acted in films and the theatre, the girls could learn a lot from her.
And then these little girls started disappearing.
The first of the little doves to disappear was Liza Dobychina. She was missed early in the evening and bedlam broke out, her parents went running round their relatives, the women howled and wept, someone said they had seen Liza on the riverbank, and then Victor Dobychin, the girl’s father, assembled the men, and they combed the banks of the river until morning, and after that they started poking about with gaffs from boats, but failed to raise anyone from the bottom.
But early in the morning Luminius the drunk found Liza’s little shoes on the cover of the well with the neck that stuck up in the centre of the town square. This was the place where people left things that someone had lost – umbrellas, galoshes, gloves, so Luminius wasn’t even surprised when he saw the shoes there. Little white pumps with low heels. Just to be on the safe side, Luminius dropped into the duty office and told Lieutenant Chervi about his find. When Nina Dobychina saw the shoes, she gasped and fainted. The militia chief Pan Paratov locked the little shoes in his safe.
Two days later Anya Shakirova disappeared. The morning after her disappearance the girl’s shoes showed up on the cover of the well. And then they found the little gypsy girl Lola Kuznetzova’s shoes in the same place.
The horrified people started giving the well a wide berth. In the shops, in the school, in the bathhouse and in the Pavlov’s Dog restaurant, the only subjects of conversation were little girls who had disappeared and psychotic killers. People stopped letting their little girls go outside. The slovenly drunk Chicha, who had had a heap of children by various different men, only allowed the little tots to play out in the yard if they were tethered: every child held another child’s leash, they got tangled up in the strings, fell over and started bawling, but their mother was adamant. The men took their rifles out of the storage cupboards. Pan Paratov asked people not to leave their homes at night without any special need.
The local loony, Madcap Newton, an old man in short, shabby little trousers, who roamed round Chudov carrying a chair, howled all day long, from morning till evening: “Carthaginians! It is here! It has returned, Carthaginians!” He had always shouted out these words, but no one made fun of him anymore, because it really had returned now, it was already here.
First one pair of shoes, then a second, and a third ...
Chudov was literally invaded by detectives from Moscow, who questioned the parents of the girls who had disappeared, their relatives and neighbours, the sales assistants in the all-night shops and even leap-year people like Luminius the drunk. No one, however, could tell them anything helpful. The militia combed the town and the surrounding area – all in vain. Every post and column was hung with photocopies of photographs with the little doves smiling out from them.
As they said in the town, what finished Ida off was the disappearance of twelve-years-old Zhenya Abeleva. That was when the old woman confessed to the militia chief Major Paratov that on the night when the first girl disappeared, she had heard a knock at the door.
The clock in Africa had struck three, the old woman had got up, gone downstairs and opened the door, but there was no one on the porch. Then she thought she must have imagined the knock at the door. Such things happen, after all. But two days later, when Anya Shakirova disappeared, there was another knock at the door. And this time there could be no mistake: Ida heard the knock distinctly: one-two-three, pause, one-two-three, pause, and then again – one-two-three. Not just a knock, a real racket. She went out onto the porch, but once again she found no one there. Just as she was – in her coat, little hat and bedroom slippers – she walked up to the square and saw Anya Shakirova’s shoes on the cover of the well. But the old woman couldn’t understand why she’d gone up to the square, and at the time she didn’t discern any connection between the knock on the door and the little dove’s disappearance.
Five days later she heard another knock at the door, walked up to the square and found the gypsy girl Lola Kuznetsova’s little shoes on the cover of the well, and that was when the old woman finally realised that the knock on the door had not been a coincidence – it had been meant for her, it was a summons and a challenge. Only the little-dove girls were disappearing, and someone wanted Ida Zmoiro to be the first to find out about it every time.
“Every night I wait for a knock on the door,” said the old woman. “Every night I think about the next little girl ...”
That had finished her.
It was a long time since Chudov had seen such a large crowd at a funeral. Thousands of people gathered on the town square, paved with twenty-four-pound cannon balls, which was sprinkled with sugar, according to the old tradition, and to the heart-rending roar of a brass band, the old woman’s body was committed to the flames, and the attendant at the crematorium, Brother February, was more majestically gloomy than ever, and the silver stitchwork of his leather apron glinted and prickled in the sunshine, and the bronze angel on the tall chimney sang luminously as he saw Ida’s soul off on its way to heaven ...
And after the funeral a throng of people gathered at the Pavlov’s Dog restaurant to remember the old woman. Dr. Zherekh was there, with the pharmacist Sievers, the chief of militia Pan Paratov, the healer and sorceress Svinina Ivanovna, skinny Scarlatina with her Goribaba, who for an occasion like this had put on a mindboggling tie with a portrait of a busty Margaret Thatcher, the postmaster Looksharphorse, the old public prosecutor Shvili with his wife Needle, the local loony Madcap Newton with his own chair, the thirty-stone restaurant owner Malina, the hunchbacked postwoman Biddy Ja, the SS-woman Dora, the dwarf Karl in his lucky shoes, the fey old man Shtop, his daughter Camellia of the hundred apartments, her husband the Crocodile Gena, Luminius the drunk, the deaf and dumb bath attendant Mumu, Chetveryago in his monstrous high boots, the Chervi family – millionaires, hairdressers and violinists – the headmistress of the school, Cicuta Lvovna, the beautiful fool Lilaya Fimochka and a host of Odnobryukhovs – all those countless Nikolais, Mikhails, Pyotrs, Ivans, Sergeis, Elenas, Xenias, Galinas and even a certain Constantia (good grief!) Feofilaktovna Odnobriukhova-Mirwald-Ogly showed up arm-in-arm with her gypsy husband ...
At the wake it suddenly emerged how little people knew about Ida Zmoiro. Far less than about the other inhabitants of Chudov. They knew almost everything about the others. They knew that Luminius the drunk, who boasted about his prick with a fingernail on it, which guaranteed him unfailing success with women, actually only enjoyed success with the deaf and dumb bath attendant Mumu. That Dr. Zherekh’s wife had a pig’s tail. That the pharmacist Sievers gave himself enemas with vodka. That the priest, Father Dmitry Okhotnikov, was afraid of spiders. That Nina Kazarinova’s great-grandmother had died of shame after she farted in company at someone else’s house. That the owner of the restaurant, Malina, mixed chicken shit into her moonshine, that the school headmistress, Cicuta Lvovna, swore like a drunken cobbler in her sleep. That Anna Akhmatova never wrote any poetry, because she sold herrings in the Stone Buildings all her life, that Hitler was Stalin’s illegitimate brother. That vodka was made out of petrol. That mermaids didn’t smoke. That the sun rose in the east and set where it ought to. Thattwo times two was four.
But the old woman Zmoiro had remained a mystery to all of them. She was over eighty years old, but she had only consulted the doctor once, when she realised that she couldn’t cope with her urinary incontinence alone. She had never had any other complaints about her health. In the morning she ate a bowl of oat porridge made with water, with no salt, at night she drank a glass of prostokvasha with a black peppercorn. She smoked ten cigarettes a day and at lunchtime she sometimes drank a shot of crowbar. Every day she walked for kilometre after kilometre in the woods – as straight as a shot, in the cast-iron coat down to her heels and the little hat. No one had ever seen her cry, no one had ever heard her complain.
She had always played the role of a dauntless woman. Chin proudly thrust out, firm gaze, clear mind. She had never gone to the public baths – she preferred to get washed at home, from a pitcher. And not once had she ever joined the women on Holy Thursday in Passion Week, when they splashed about in the icy water by the Pure Bank at dawn in order to wash away their sins before Easter. She had avoided crowds. In the shops they gave her short weight and measure shamelessly, defiantly, maliciously, but she never got into arguments with the shop assistants, who were just waiting for her to blow a fuse and start yelling and complaining, so that they could revel in her humiliation. She never did. She didn’t shed a single tear when she buried her nearest and dearest. She never asked the crematorium assistant how much ash was left after the deceased was burnt. Other people always asked. They were proud that their late lamented had produced a whole four pounds, while the neighbour’s deceased had barely even managed three (in Chudov sheep’s wool and ash were measured only in pounds). Ida had simply collected the urn with the ashes in it without saying a word and gone home without looking back – as straight as a shot, with a haughty gaze. Not single sigh, not a single tear.
In Chudov they knew that as punishment for marrying a foreigner, Stalin had made it impossible for her to act in films or the theatre and exiled her from Moscow altogether. She had lost everything. But if they tried to commiserate with her or call her poor and unfortunate, Ida replied with an icy smile: “Happiness makes people fat”. People somehow felt awkward and constrained in her presence. Even at home she always wore high-heeled shoes. At eighty-something years of age! A foreigner, not a woman. A being from a different world.
An actress, a foreign husband, Stalin, a school for little doves ... someone recalled her nobleman father, Commander of the First Red Army Battalion Named For Jesus Christ of Nazareth, King of the Jews, and her prostitute mother, someone else recalled her third husband, a general, who had been declared an enemy of the people and shot not long before Stalin died ...
They tried to assemble her image, like a jigsaw puzzle, but the result was always the same: a solitary and arrogant eccentric who had been rich and famous, and then became poor and insignificant ... she had taught the young doves, drunk her prostokvasha with black pepper, smoked ten cigarettes a day ...
“Well now,” said Dr. Zherekh, as the wake was coming to an end, “she was an actress, although we don’t know much about the roles she played. But we do know for certain that she played one role well – the role of Ida Zmoiro, actress.”
Everybody stood and drank to Ida Zmoiro. They drank, as is proper at wakes, in silence and without clinking glasses.
For me Ida Zmoiro was my favourite aunt. She called me Friday, and on her lips this street alias of mine sounded like a magical incantation.
“Friday, we’re going for a walk!” she would shout from the steps, and I would go flying out into the yard.
No one knew as much about the past of the town as she knew.
One day we stopped at the Pavlov’s Dog restaurant, which had a narrow little, two-storey building snuggling against its side wall, with a signboard that said “Photo”. In the little town both the photo studio and the photographers were called by a strange name – Sur Mesure – but I never bothered to think why. Ida told me about the Frenchman from Moscow who had opened a fashion studio in this little house in the 1820’s. Every year he held shows of his new collections of clothes with the assistance of two wooden dummies, who had their own names – Big Pandora and Little Pandora. Big Pandora was used for displaying outer garments, and the underclothes were put on Little Pandora. In memory of the Frenchman, who had been dubbed Sur Mesure, the municipal library still kept a fashion magazine that the tailor had brought from Paris. It said in the magazine that in 1825 in Paris it was the done thing to wear blue glasses, rather than green ones, to like the countryside, to serve orange-blossom ice cream and at public bathhouses to jump into the water after the manner of a certain M. Jacquot – doubled up like a monkey. This Sur Mesure and his progeny had sewn for the small number of ladies in Chudov society, and at night for the African girls – the whores from the bawdyhouse. In the summer of 1919 Ida’s father – Alexander Zmoiro, Commander of the First Red Army Battalion Named For Jesus Christ of Nazareth, King of the Jews, had ordered these “figures of depravity” to be burned publicly in the town square. And soon after the Civil War a photo studio opened here.
As we cut across the square, Ida told me about the Church of the Lord’s Resurrection, towering up between the pharmacy and the German House. Either by chance or deliberate design on the part of the builders, it always bitterly cold under the vaults of this church. If deceased were left in the church overnight, they were covered in hoarfrost by morning, and the priest and his parishioners spoke to God only about the most important things, to avoid freezing solid themselves.
And also, during the troubled times that followed the death of Ivan the Terrible, it was in this church that they prayed for the salvation of Russia. According to Ida, people gathered here, in Chudov, from far and wide in order to learn the name of the person who would rule Russia, who would put an end to the war and establish peace in this land. On the lectern at the centre of the church, where the Book of the Gospels usually lay open, they placed a clean sheet of paper. Then everyone went out of the church and the doors were locked. In those years there weren’t any buildings round about, no pharmacy, no German House, just the church standing on the top of the hill. Thousands of people who had gathered here from all over Russia went down on their knees – by the walls of the church, and further down, and on the riverbank – and started praying to God to reveal the name of the saviour and inscribe it on the sheet of paper left on the lectern. Their prayers resounded ever more insistently, ever more passionately, they prayed day and night, in scorching sun and torrential rain, on snow and on green grass, and the day came when God heeded their prayers: letters appeared on the paper of their own accord and a name emerged ...
“What name?” I asked.
Ida shook her head and smiled.
“That remained a secret.”
Church, pharmacy, crematorium, German House, Africa, French Bridge, Eight-Hour Street ...
Thanks to Ida, thanks to her stories, the small, boring town came to life, its image acquired depth and its history, filled with people and events, acquired drama. Severe, bearded men in feryazes and beaver caps, ladies in crinolines, beggars and degenerates, armed with Gan-Krnka fortress guns and banners blanched white with the blood of the Lamb ... passions raged, blood was spilled, great feats of saintliness were accomplished – such was the real life of Chudov in Ida’s version ...
Our walks often ended on the Cat’s Bridge.
From a distance this stub end of an unfinished bridge looked like a dinosaur with a long neck, suspended helplessly above the water: concrete blocks, with which the entrance to the bridge was barricaded off, a platform of half-eroded reinforced-concrete slabs, piled high with junk, rusty reinforcing rods with ropes and stalactites of moss dangling from them, crooked birch trees and puny poplars that had proliferated among the rubbish ... This immensely long, melancholy monster seemed absolutely bound to collapse some day soon, but it didn’t collapse, it carried on hanging above the strong-tea-coloured water, supported on three cyclopean, moss-covered piers – one on the bank, one on the slope of the hill, and two in the water – serving no purpose, except perhaps as a reminder of the times when they tried to drive a waterway to India through these parts – a canal that would unite the great Russian rivers with the rivers of great India, aimlessly and fruitlessly seething with riches in anticipation of Moscow’s remorseless power, its warriors, tavern keepers and tsars ... Why India? Falsehood, fairy tale, beauty – that was why India. Because of the water! But people liked this lie, this stupid fairytale, so much, it had permeated so deeply into their minds, that no one thought about anything else at all except India – about the scintillating phantom of the magical south, from which nothing but calamities ever came – nomads, cholera or Stalin – but to which the Russian heart nonetheless aspired, dreaming of the south, the sunny south, with its irresistibly powerful attraction for the Russian, who has lived for a thousand years in a magical world of dreams, under a grey sky, in bear-brown clothes, with a bleeding heart, not dying only because somewhere over there, beyond the forests and the mountains, there existed blossoming, magical India.
The first construction project, conceived by Peter the Great, soon got bogged down and sank in the shifting swamps extending to the south of the town. The second project was halted by the war of 1914 and the third by the death of Stalin, although it was during this third attempt that a section of the bogs was successfully drained and the deepest canal in the world was built, with walls consisting of six metres of grade 1000 hydrotechnical cement – which provided the final resting-place for dozens of convicts, whose elbows, heels and heads came to light during the grinding down of the concrete surfaces.
In the summer of 1953, as if at a single command, the locomotives and steamboats, lorries and derrick-cranes, cement-mixers and compressors all ground to a halt. In a single day the entire effort to erect a monument to the Generalissimus, with a nameless hill to the south of Chudov as its pediment, expired completely. The endeavours of navvies and stonecutters had transformed the hill into a regular four-sided pyramid, with broad steps incised into each side and a flat summit, on which the leader’s left boot – thirty-five metres high – had already been installed, and the right hand had been suspended on the hook of a crane, pointing out the direction of future crusades in search of happiness. For a long time the immense hand had carried on swaying in the wind with a metallic screech, bathed in the feebly roiling grey clouds, frightening the birds and beavers and preventing old people from getting to sleep: sometimes they made their way out onto the unfinished bridge to gaze for a while at the hand in the distance, black against the background of the sky, rotating slowly on its cable and provoking twinges of agonisingly painful creaking in the latticework jib of the crane abandoned on the summit of the hill with no name.
One day the crane collapsed, and then they carted the metal away for remelting, and on the bottom of the unfinished canal a swamp formed, in which even migratory birds were afraid to be reflected: unable to withstand the debilitating onslaught of the tree roots, the six-metres-thick walls cracked and started crumbling; the narrow-gauge railway, constructed especially to shuttle in freight and deliver food supplies to construction workers, sank into the eternally shifting ground along its entire length; the water in the creek, overgrown with water lilies, pondweed and algae, was transformed into a thick, blood-and-rust, sunken-barge soup; and before long the forests, the bogs and the rivulets, changing their courses from year to year, from spring flood to spring flood, had engulfed the remains of the great construction project.
The only thing to survive was this littered stump of a bridge – a morosely magnificent, bony monster on cyclopean legs, stretching out its neck over the lake.
At a rotting wharf about two hundred metres away from the bridge stood the steamship Hyderabad, half-sunk into the liquid mud. It had once been the pride of Chudov. This slender beauty with a rapacious muzzle and a fast turn of speed was built and equipped in accordance with the latest word of engineering in its time: an upper deck of Krupp’s steel, powerful Normand boilers, Morgan paddle-wheels and a twenty-five-barrel Christophe et Montigny mitrailleuse on the bow. Manned by a crew of desperadoes, it cruised confidently along rivers both minor and great, across seas and oceans, even reaching India and returning with a load of glorious laurel and vibrant lemons, but most importantly of all – it helped give people the feeling that they lived in a large world and presented them with arrival-feast holidays, when the entire little town gathered on the quayside to the sounds of a steam orchestra, gun salutes and the chiming of bells in order to greet a genuine ship, to breathe in voraciously the smells of lemon and laurel, sandalwood and coffee, to marvel without restraint at the wonders of foreign science and engineering, such as Chinamen, Maxim machineguns and educated monkeys, to exult, gorge, swill and dance unstintingly, to the point of bellyache, exhaustion, perhaps even collapse. But never mind the bellyache and the collapse – in return there was something to remember afterwards on winter evenings over a glass of ruinous moonshine in Pavlov’s Dog or at home, to the sound of the old folks’ coughing, the clatter of the sewing machine and the howling of the ferocious, icy winds whistling over the great Russian plains, where life barely glimmered and the brightest festivals of all were insurrections, conflagrations and the distribution of free crutches that had been lying in store since the First World War ...
I would gape from the bridge at the summits of the pines and fir trees, trying to make out the phantom of the magical country in the distance, and Ida would light up a cigarette and set about methodically and pitilessly tearing down all these myths, fairytales and downright lies.
Well yes, she said, during the reigns of Peter the Great and Nicholas I they did try to build a canal, but only in order to facilitate merchant shipping on the small rivers of the Volga-Oka basin, but it’s quite impossible to tell what they were building in Stalin’s time – a canal, or a tunnel, or a highway. It’s quite possible that the construction work was begun for military purposes – to allow the secret movement of equipment in the Moscow anti-aircraft defence zone.
And as for the Hyderabad, a merchant acquired it in England in 1894, had it delivered overland to Chudov, fitted out a restaurant on the upper deck and rooms with prostitutes on the lower one, and at the pleasure of the rollicking clients, the ship could make an incomplete circuit round the lake – as far as the French Bridge and back, frightening the old women with the bellowing of its horn and the tuneless singing of the sweet violins.
“But the dream ...” Ida blew out her smoke in rings. “Ah yes, the dream ... that, of course, remained ... where would the Russian be without India? Without the sweet violins? A cow and a dream: there’s no surviving without either ...”
Ida often reminisced about her teachers – about the actress Serafima Birger, the Great Fima, and her husband, Konstantin Borisovich Brodsky, whom everyone simply called Kabo. Fima was rehabilitated shortly after the 20th Party Congress and when she was freed, she went back to Moscow and wrote to Ida, who went dashing to the capital – at the time she had no one closer than Fima and Kabo. The three of them – Serafima, Kabo and Ida – set out for the Metropole hotel. Serafima joked and laughed, telling Ida about the years she had spent in the Northern Caucasus, about the theatre she had organised in the camp.
“We celebrated the Boss’s death with Hamlet. It was a women’s camp and all the male roles were played by women. I was Claudius. When I was killed, the audience gave me a standing ovation!”
When Fima went out to the toilet, Kabo leaned across to Ida.
“Remember Hamlet’s conversation with the actors he invited to Elsinore when they arrive? Hamlet asks an actor to recite Aeneas’s monologue ... about the death of Priam and Queen Hecuba ...”
“Yesterday evening Fima started reciting in front of the mirror ... completely out of the blue ... But who, O, who had seen the mobled queen run barefoot up and down, threatening the flames
with bisson rheum; a clout upon that head where late the diadem stood ... and she suddenly burst into tears ...” Kabo smiled mournfully. “She keeps running to the toilet ... she got a chill in her bladder there ... cystitis ...”
Serafima came back and Kabo started pontificating about the provinces: “History is written in capital cities, but made in little towns”. And an officer with a bouquet came up to their table, apologised and started saying something about Serafima Birger’s great contribution to Soviet art and how her roles would remain part of the history of cinema for ever ...
“On condition that the history of cinema remains part of history,” Serafima interrupted him with a smile, accepting the roses. “Thank you, colonel.”
But after he walked away, she said bitterly to Ida:
“A vision, that’s where salvation lies. You have to have a vision, a dream, and then you will remain a free individual even in the most terrible prison. Focus on the vision!”
She caught her breath and went limp.
“How are you getting on in that Chudov of yours? How do you live?”
“I sell fur coats.”
“I brought twenty fur coats from England. Mink, sable ... That’s enough to live on.”
“But fur coats can’t be a vision.”
They started talking about the future – Fima was dreaming of a return to the theatre, of new roles in the cinema. “I’m ready to gobble up all these Gertrudes and Katherines with a spoon,” she said. “I was pining, but now I’m ravenous!”
Six weeks later Serafima poisoned herself with Nembutal. She committed suicide forty-seven days after being released.
It was a Monday when Ida got the telegram from Kabo. Fima’s funeral was set for the Wednesday.
In those days the only way to get to Moscow was to get a lift on something going your way – either a forestry enterprise truck or a cart if someone from Chudov was going to a market. But it was a working day, no one was going to the capital, and Ida had to walk all the way to Kandaurov.
She remembered that journey for the rest of her life.
In a little hat with a veil, a light black coat and high-heeled shoes, it took her two hours to reach Kandaurov. A cold wind, rain, gooey mud – and all this at the height of summer. Every time she met a loaded timber truck, Ida had to clamber out onto the verge and shelter from the dirty spray in the roadside ditch. Soaked and chilled through, at Kandaurov she went into a diner, drank a glass of vodka and ate a sandwich with cheese as tough as plywood. The men in padded jackets and women in dark shawls sitting at the tables kept glancing curiously at Ida, who smelled of French perfume. She didn’t notice their glances. She was thinking about Fima, the Great Fima, the immortal Fima. Nembutal was a sleeping drug, wasn’t it? A poison. Fima had taken poison and died. How did it happen? Did she lie down in hot water, take a handful of tablets and fall asleep forever? No, hardly. Fima probably thought about her withering naked body, which other people would drag out of the bath, swearing through their teeth. No, definitely not. She went to the hairdresser’s, had a manicure and pedicure, put on a beautiful dress, drank half a glass of champagne ...
As she thought about this, Ida ran through Fima’s dresses in her mind and stopped at an elegant dark-blue one: it emphasised her girlish figure and showed off her long, shapely legs. Good enough for a ball – or the journey to the next world. And to go with it – low-cut formal shoes, a slim string of pearls, earrings with tiny little diamonds, three drops of perfume, pale lipstick, a cigarette in a gold cigarette-holder ...
Ida raised her head – the whole diner was looking at her – and she realised that she was weeping out loud.
Then she climbed into the back of a truck going her way, settled in among the sacks, beside the men in quilted jackets and women in dark shawls, and fell asleep, and when she woke up at the Kazan Station in Moscow, it turned out that someone had stolen her handbag containing the purse with all her money in it. It was already getting dark when she reached Kabo’s flat on foot and discovered that the coffin with Fima’s body in it had been taken to the Kandaurov cemetery. She borrowed money from the servant and caught a taxi, but when she arrived at the cemetery, everyone had already left, and although she spent a long time wandering along the paths between the low railings of the burial plots, she still couldn’t find Fima’s grave. She had to walk back to Chudov – in the cold rain, through the sticky mud. Halfway back one of her heels broke. Ida looked round – there was no one anywhere near – and started bawling.
So she hadn’t seen Fima off on her final journey.
Fima – dark-blue dress, cigarettes with a gold cigarette-holder, husky voice ...
Ida took off her shoes and sloshed through the mud in her silk stockings.
She felt bitter, ashamed and lonely.
A week later she received a letter from Kabo – it was verbose, as usual:
“In our youth we often argued about life and people from the height of our unwritten books and unplayed roles. We believed in the god who dwelt in our souls, and therefore we were cruel to those around us; other people’s god seemed a low creature to us, lower than ours. We still didn’t understand then that one should not believe in God – one should love Him, as people love their children. Love saved Fima in the camp. Remember, in the restaurant she spoke of a vision that makes it possible to remain free even in prison? In actual fact she was talking about love.”
Kabo had always been given to prolix philosophising, he wanted to talk, but Fima wasn’t there now. Kabo was afraid of emptiness and he tried to beguile it with words. Fima hadn’t been afraid of emptiness, which she called the actor’s motherland and home. But only a genuine artist, she had said, could create a void in which a star would ignite spontaneously.
That was when Ida had realised for the first time that precisely this – the attempt to ignite a star in a void – was what her life would add up to, and for the first time she felt afraid.
Vision, love, God, gooey mud ...
“The performance is drawing to an end,” Ida told me – “and I still haven’t understood what role I’m playing. Fima told me that the final meaning of a role very often becomes clear only after it has been played.” She paused. “A pitiful queen ... But who, O, who had seen the mobled queen run barefoot up and down, threatening the flames with bisson rheum; a clout upon that head where late the diadem stood ...”
We stood on the Cat’s Bridge and in the darkness her magical, nasal voice sounded sad, but not plaintive.
I walked out of Pavlov’s Dog, where the wake was continuing, round the square and down along Yid Street to the French Bridge. This was where our long walks used to begin. Ida would take me by the arm – I sometimes felt afraid when heavy trucks drove past us on the bridge – and we would walk up the shallow slope of the bank to the forest. Extending to the right of us was a vista of forestry enterprise warehouses, mountains of logs, wood chips and sawdust. We made our way out onto a familiar track and struck off into the forest.
The goal of our campaign marches was almost always the Ailing Church, remarkable only for the fact that Little Horse once had Ida christened there in secret from her husband. The church had long ago been abandoned and reduced to a heap of rotten beams, there was nothing interesting there, but it was so fine to breathe the forest air ...
Sometimes, though, we would settle down on the shore of the lake. Ida would smoke and I would fling stones into the water, counting the “pancakes”.
I tried to remember the last time she and I went walking – I thought it was about five years before she died.
Evening was drawing in.
I went back to the square
In Pavlov’s Dog the wake was still continuing, but I felt like being alone for a while and I set out for the Cat’s Bridge.
I don’t remember how much time I spent there or how many cigarettes I smoked, thinking about Ida Zmoiro.
Her image was scattered through my memory like small pieces of smalt, and as things had turned out, I was the only one capable of assembling a mosaic out of these fragments and chips.
I thought about Chudov, which one of these days would become part of Moscow, dissolve into it, and suddenly realised that I had to tell this story. All of it. About this town and these people. About the executioner-brothers who founded Chudov, about the Sleeping Beauty, about the SS Hyderabad, Hannah and Captain Kholupiev, about Alexander Zmoiro, the commander of the First Red Guards Battalion Named For Jesus Christ of Nazareth and his wife Little Horse, about the black spot of fate and the Cat’s Bridge, about Kolya Vdovushkin and the horses shod with fire, about Baba Shuba, about magical India, about the infernal yen for self-destruction and the divine passion for flight and. finally, about a god – yes about a god too, a lilac and gold god.
Africa – a facade of shabby false columns, crumbling stucco, boarded-up windows on the ground floor, a sagging roof, patched in some places with tin-plate, in others with iron and in others with skew-set planks. Above the entrance are the vaguely recognisable remains of the coat-of-arms that belonged to a certain Afrikan Petrovsky, one of the former owners of the house: three stars in a circle at the top, and below them a hand in a steel glove, clutching a crooked Tatar sword. Around the building – bushes of elder, lilac, rotted stacks of wood, deposits of rubbish. Heaps of broken brick and rusty iron. Inside there was a smell of mice and naphthalene, tufts of hemp fibres protruded from cracks everywhere, and holes in the floor let in a cold, damp draught. The people had all moved out of this place long ago – only Ida was left, occupying the flat up at the top with three rooms and a kitchen.
In four hundred and something years the house had had a multitude of different owners, who had remodelled it to suit their needs. Walls, stairways and corridors in the building had been moved, new windows had been broken through walls, halls had been converted into closets and cubbyholes had been combined together into halls, and once they had got so carried away that they immured a grandfather clock with a cherry wood case in some partition wall. They realised what they had done when the clock started chiming the time at three in the morning. They broke down one wall, then another, tampered here and squeezed in there, but still didn’t find the clock and gave it up as a bad job: the winding mechanism would run down some time and the clock would stop on its own. But the winding mechanism didn’t run down – the clock carried on striking three every night. It was silent during the day, but at night, at precisely three a.m., a quiet groaning sounded somewhere in the depths of the building, to be followed by three ponderous, resounding strokes that could be heard for a long distance all around. And so it went, night after night, year after year. The chiming was loud and distinct, but no matter how hard they searched, no matter how many walls they demolished, they still couldn’t find the clock, as if it wasn’t a mechanism in a cherry wood box, but a sinful, unshriven soul, doomed to wander the labyrinths of Africa until the Day of Judgement.
In her childhood Ida believed there was a reason why the clock chimed at night. It was a summons, no less. The summons of the future, the voice of destiny itself. Other people heard the irksome but familiar chime of a clock, while she heard the voice of God. But then, she wasn’t the same as all the others. She was special, chosen. By the age of seven she had read Mumu and Hamlet, and set about Materialism and Empiriocriticism.
Almost every night, when the clock in Africa struck three, she climbed out of bed and went down into the yard. She went up on her tiptoes and squeezed her eyes shut in order to hear more clearly. A minute would go by, and then another, but she couldn’t make out anything apart from the monotonous rustling of the trees and the splashing of water. The asexual night smelled of pine trees, pigs and currants.
The little girl went back to bed feeling slightly upset, but not disappointed. It’s all right, she told herself, it means it’s not time yet, it means everything’s still to come: the meaning of those sounds would be revealed to her yet.
But my father failed to detect any meaning at all in those sounds. The chiming of the clock irritated him. Several times, on sudden impulse, he attempted to track down and smash this damned mechanism that disturbed his sleep, but it couldn’t possibly be done without the neighbours’ help, and my father didn’t get on with the neighbours. He found it hard to get on with people in general – he was quick-tempered, irritable and abrupt. But sometimes he would be engulfed by fits of black melancholy – and then he could go for weeks without a saying a word.
One day my mother told me that my father was even put in a camp, not because of politics, but because of his character: at the very end of the war, when he was the regimental chief of staff, he had a disagreement with his superiors, said a lot of things that he shouldn’t have said and wound up in Kolyma under Article 58-10. However, my parents were the kind of Russians who regarded even underserved punishment as shameful, so it wasn’t done in our family to talk about my father’s past.
When my parents moved into Africa, it was teeming with life: the clatter of sewing machines, the smell of fried fish and kerosene, female neighbours spitting in each other’s soup as it simmered in the communal kitchens, male neighbours playing dominoes in the courtyard, drinking vodka, celebrating weddings and funerals alike with a fight. And everyone kept chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, cows – Africa was surrounded by lopsided, smelly little barns and sheds that emitted loud grunting, lowing, cackling and quacking.
My father hated this life, this “piggy Mezozoic” as he called it, and he didn’t conceal his contempt for the neighbours. Being so tall, well-read and well-mannered, he stood out among the stunted little men who blew their noses into their fists and he felt like a lion among mice. He worked as the deputy director of a forestry and logging enterprise, but dreamed of a different life. He dreamed – and did nothing to realise his dream. He resembled the powerful steam locomotive that had been brought to Chudov shortly after the war and set up on a vacant plot of land. It was an immense brute of a machine, the embodiment of impetuous propulsive force, capable of rushing trains weighing thousands of tonnes along the rails, but instead of that it was obliged to provide heat for a hospital, a maternity home and a pitiful little dairy plant – a few blank-eyed little sheds standing on the bank of the river and broadcasting an eternal sour stench.
I was left fatherless before I even reached the age of seven
It was a summer evening. I was playing hide-and-seek with the boys from Africa and I crept into the basement. I hid behind an old barrel and froze. A minute later I heard footsteps and peeped out. It was my father.
From under a heap of planks dumped in the end room, he dragged out a small birch log, about a metre and a half long and thirty centimetres in diameter. He set it on a trestle and started flogging it, roaring at each blow as if he was not thrashing, but being thrashed with the whip woven out of steel wire.
Yes, that was exactly what happened.
He walked down into the basement, switched on the light, set the birch log on a trestle, took off his shirt, armed himself with a whip woven out of thin steel wire, walked round the small room, getting his aim, and struck the first blow. After the first blow the bark on the log split, but this blow was only struck at half-strength, and after the sixth or the seventh the bark started flying off the trunk in tufts, and the next blow struck the birch’s moist, white body. The log shuddered and then, having felt the wood’s resistance, my father set about the job in earnest. His eyes narrowed, his mouth opened slightly, his forehead, neck and shoulders were suddenly moist with sweat. He leaned back and to one side, raising the whip to strike, and lashed out at the birch with all his strength, and every blow was more powerful than the last, more furious and pitiless, and his breathing grew more and more frenzied, until soon he was breathing out with a loud wheeze, crying out and coughing up sputum, unaware of the blood speckling his hands and his singlet, or the fine crumbs and chips of wood flying into his contorted face, and the whip twisted together out of steel wire whistled, writhing, through the air and struck, shredding and smashing the trembling, tormented, bloodied wood, and a ghastly shadow darted around the room with the whitewashed walls, shuddering, howling and squirming until at last, with the final blow that broke the log in two, the utterly exhausted man dropped to his knees and froze, breathing fitfully and shaking his head, and the blood from his nose and his gaping mouth trickled down over his chin, dribbling in phlegmy threads onto the floor, into his black shadow ...
I slipped out through the door and dashed upstairs, into the kitchen, crept under the table, lay down on the floor with my face to the wall and closed my eyes. Pulsating waves of dark horror, nausea and pain swept over me from all sides. Their origin lay somewhere downstairs, in the basement, or even at the centre of the earth, they swept unhindered through wood, brick and concrete, inducing nausea, pain in my head and terror. This terror was all around, it swamped me, rising up over my head. Evil rampaged unrestrained, I shuddered and shook. I pressed myself against the wall, squirmed and trembled and eventually wet myself, but that brought me no relief. And then I lost consciousness.
I don’t know how long I lay under the table. But when I woke up, for the first moment I couldn’t stir a muscle – it felt as if my body was covered with burns.
Eventually I crawled out from under the table, walked over to the window on legs that buckled under me and leaned my chest against the windowsill, and at that moment impenetrable biblical clouds – coal, silver and blood – closed together over our house with a thunderclap and the first drops of rain fell on the earth, and a moment later space both far and near was shrouded in a clamorous, fuming deluge.
The courtyard was transformed into a single large, seething, bubbling puddle, with slivers of wood and chicken feathers bobbing up and down in it.
“That won’t be over soon,” I heard my father’s voice say.
I turned round.
He had walked into the kitchen without making a sound and sat down on a stool, setting his large hands with the swollen veins on the table. In the semi-darkness of the kitchen I couldn’t make out his face.
My mother came in and switched on the light.
My father looked at me. He had never looked at me like that – with eyes like that. I didn’t know this gaze of his and I was frightened by it.
By the age of seven the list of my transgressions no longer fitted onto my childish palm – I had been in trouble often enough for various different pranks. I had never been beaten even once, but I had often been scolded. When I was scolded I could, of course, see and feel that my parents were disappointed, but I didn’t feel what is called burning shame. For me my parents, despite being omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, remained somehow incorporeal beings. That is, they were voices, smells and touches, dissolved in my life, but signifying no more than, for instance, trees or cats. Their existence in my immortal, and therefore shameless, world was natural, that is, devoid of meaning.
On that July evening everything changed.
My father gazed at me in sombre silence, flexing his jaw muscles. Only a minute earlier I had known that I hadn’t done anything for which I deserved to be punished. A minute earlier I had been convinced of my innocence. But all of a sudden everything changed: my father’s spirit detached itself from the world of trees and cats and was incarnated – all of a sudden, in its entirety. Incarnated in this tall, strong man with a resolute chin.
He sat at the table without speaking, keeping his sombre gaze fixed on me. I suddenly felt afraid, and then ashamed for some reason. The sense of my own innocence evaporated in an instant, I realised quite distinctly that I deserved ferocious punishment simply because I existed and also because he, my father, and not I, was the one who had writhed and screamed in the basement, although that had nothing at all to do with me, and also because I was standing at the window with my pants pissed, and he was sitting at the table, resting his heavy hands with the swollen veins on the oilcloth, with a chilly arctic malice in his eyes, and although it had nothing at all to do with me, I was standing there at the window with my pants pissed and I realised that I was guilty simply because I was his son, and that was beyond repair ...
I was flogged to the raw meat and put outside in a temperature of minus a hundred. Disgraced, naked, flogged to the scarlet, steaming meat. Fifty-two thousand one hundred and seventy-three sharp, icy needles jabbed into my trembling flesh. Or even fifty-two thousand one hundred and seventy-four.
Fear and shame entered my world, giving it meaning, and this was as irrevocable as death
A shudder ran through my entire scrawny being and I was about to start bawling when the door opened and Ida walked into the kitchen. She put a little suitcase down on the floor, slipped off a soaking-wet, light-coloured raincoat, a hat and shoes – all seemingly in a single movement – and spoke in her magical, low, slightly nasal voice.
“Thank God, nothing’s changed here at your place!”
I stared at her bare feet and suddenly realised what had attracted me so much: her toes. I had never paid any attention to women’s fingers and, especially, their toes, but now I couldn’t tear my eyes away from Ida’s bare feet. Perhaps it was all simply due to the fact that her toes had not been mutilated by tight shoes, like the other Chudov women’s. Our neighbour Aunty Brysya’s nails were yellow, thick, grooved and ridged, but Ida didn’t have nails, she had tiny, pearly half-moons. Toes and toenails, nothing but toes and toenails. I suddenly wanted to see what they tasted like, those nails. Take her left little toe between my lips, like a cherry. It was very beautiful. Agonisingly beautiful. The thought of beauty entered my head for the first time as abruptly and unexpectedly as only a minute earlier the stupefying, stinking, burning shame had entered it, and this thought transfixed me with such agony that I started blubbering desperately.
Well of course, I knew Ida, she was a part of my world, but, I repeat, a decorative part, like my father and mother, like trees and cats. I had heard that she used to be an actress and she acted in films, and also that she used to live abroad, from where she had brought – to the envy of all the Chudov women – some kind of stunning dresses, shoes, fur coats and gloves. I also knew that her normal temperature was like a cat’s, 38 degrees Celsius. And that she had never had children and never would have. Her face was divided by a scar that ran down the right cheek beside the nose and especially disfigured her upper lip. And she had a slight limp too. Several times a year she went to Moscow on some business or other and when she came back, my mother used to say: “You’re unfortunate, Ida, unhappy,” and Ida would answer: “Happiness makes people fat”.
The magical voice, the laugh, the beautiful dresses, the scar – it all added up to an image that was flamboyant, but two-dimensional, lifeless.
But now everything had changed: I saw Ida with new eyes.
She stood in the middle of the kitchen – barefoot, slim, shapely, tall, laughing, in some wonderfully agitated dress, all bright and glowing and rippling, and smelling of damp, cool freshness - and I blubbered.
She took hold of my hand and dragged me upstairs. As it happened, I had never been in her little flat even once. We walked up to a small room under the roof: a narrow bed, a chest of drawers and a cluttered writing desk – books, an iron, a sewing machine, off-cuts of material, papers, drooping flowers in a pot-bellied vase, a scattering of pencils ...
Ida flung open the window and the sounds of the receding storm, the fading patter of rain, the blissful smells of sweet rot and mould came gushing in. She squatted down in front of me – the hem of her dressed fluttered up and fell back, scalding me briefly with her fragrant body – took hold of my ear and asked in her magical voice:
“Tell me, what’s your secret name?”
I suddenly felt shy and stopped sobbing.
“Every person has a secret name,” she went on. “He has one name that everyone knows, but only he knows the other one, the real, secret one. Who are you really, Alyosha? What do you think?”
I started running through the names that I liked in my head. For instance, Stalin. We had a book with an embossed portrait of Stalin: noble grey hair, white military tunic, golden shoulder-straps – the embodiment of beauty, strength and truth. There were another two lovely names – Alligator and Hero of the Soviet Union – I liked the way they sounded. Or Goliath. I had got my hands on a children’s Bible, lying in the attic among the other old books, and read the story of David and Goliath. But, of course, my hero wasn’t the despicable cheat David, but the Philistine Goliath – more than eleven feet tall, coated all over in scaly bronze armour that weighed five thousand mysterious shekels, with a sword and a spear – a genuine Alligator and Hero of the Soviet Union, a friend of Stalin. And I had read the story of Theseus, who conquered the Minotaur, was given Ariadne as a reward and fled from the malicious Minos. Why not Theseus?
While I was running through the names, Ida watched me attentively. I looked up at her and she suddenly nodded, as if she had guessed what I was thinking and approved my choice. But which of my names was it that she liked? Stalin or Goliath? Or perhaps it was Alligator after all?
“You don’t have to tell me anything yet,” she said. “Sometime you’ll realise which name is the real one. Some people remain nameless until the day they die.”
“But what’s yours?”
“Mine ... You won’t tell anyone?”
“Silent as a grave,” I promised. “A grave with three crosses.”
“Well then,” she said. “Morval and monomil, that’s what my secret name is. Morval and monomil.”
It was, of course, a very unusual name, which possessed three merits at once: it was complicated, sonorous and meaningless.
Ida fed me tea with jam and put me to bed.
In the morning my mother came running. They whispered together about something, Ida stroked my hair and my mother said:
“It’s best he went. I always felt afraid he would kill someone.”
That night my father had died: his heart had given out under the strain of life’s futility.
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield